How to get started in ebook publishing

First, a little history.

In the beginning, I wanted to be a writer. However, that’s not how it worked out. In college, I first set out to be an electrical engineer, and then pretty quickly jumped horses to computing. After making the horrifying discovery that my university’s well-respected program wasn’t teaching much of practical value, I changed majors again to study literature in order to pursue my initial dream. As it happens, though, I ended up working in the computer industry. I became very good at it by learning in the school of hard knocks.

Still, the creative bug never left me. With most computer admin jobs, either it’s quiet or frantic. During the quiet times, sometimes I would write, whenever I wasn’t honing my 1337 5k1llz in Minesweeper. The problem is getting it published, of course. I inherited my inclination for science fiction from my father. When he was young, you could get just about anything published so long as it had a rocket ship on the cover. By the time I was a teenager, there were about a dozen publishing houses, and they were a lot pickier. God help anyone who didn’t submit in the official proper manuscript format! (Ten point Courier font, double spaced, one inch margins, underlines where it’s supposed to be italicized, yada yada yada.) I started submitting to my favorite magazine so I could get a toehold in the business and hopefully some name recognition, but my only results were rejection letters. Meanwhile, some of the stuff they printed by established authors wasn’t as good as the things I was sending them, in my not so humble opinion. In fact, one of the stories was so corny that it became the inspiration for my flagship product, the Space Vixen Trek series.

All starting authors get rejected (unless your last name happens to begin with “P” and end with “aolini”, and then Bob’s your uncle), so I know how it goes. Most great writers could make wallpaper out of the rejection letters they got in the beginning. As I’ve heard, you’ve got to keep plugging away. It’s the same thing with finding a girlfriend, as a matter of fact. Even so, some new authors do break in, some deservedly – J.K. Rowling, for one – and others perhaps less so (sparkly vampires – come on…) The only things I ever got published in a national magazine were a satire about an ex-girlfriend, and a vignette about a three day outage at work exacerbated by management not listening to me.

Meanwhile, the publishing industry was changing. Thanks to Bush the Elder, antitrust laws for the media were relaxed, and now there are six corporate mega-conglomerates controlling the print business (as well as television, movies, newspapers, magazines, and thus public opinion). It used to be that you could submit a manuscript to a publishing house, and if all the stars were aligned the right way, an editor might pick it up out of the slush pile and actually read it. Now, literary agents are the gatekeepers, and a manuscript sent to a real editor will generally get routed directly to the round file. Agents do have connections – which justifies the 10% cut they get – but the problem is that they tend to be just as overworked and snooty as the editors were. That seems a rather cavalier way for them to treat their bread and butter, but it’s just one of those things. (It’s a supply and demand issue, similar to the market distortion that average guys face in the dating arena, but I’ve already ranted enough about that elsewhere.) Then I came across a rather dispiriting post from someone on a writer’s forum, basically to the effect that a newcomer with talent has about a 2% chance of getting discovered. Basically, I gave up my dreams after that, but kept on writing anyway.

After Al Gore invented the Internet, things were set in motion for yet another change. Back then, I was puzzled why the industry still insisted on the ritual of would-be writers printing things out on dead trees in the proper manuscript format, then mailing it to somewhere in New York. Then, of course, you wait the required 3-6 months before you give up hope and send to somewhere else – “no simsubs”, the requirements usually would say charmingly. I figured that if only they modernized, people could email the files, and a rejection note telling you that you’re free to find somewhere else wouldn’t cost them a cent. Further, they wouldn’t have to deal with transcribing everything that went to press, and they could all get rid of the mountains of paper on their desks. But, I digress.

Eventually books started going online. At first, it was considered career suicide for a writer to go this route. As the years went by, I found out that electronic publishing wasn’t the ghetto it once was. So no more gatekeepers, and no more agents getting a piece of your action either. Ebooks are big now. As for the print industry, they haven’t quite gone the way of the dinosaur, but they’re suffering pretty badly. As one of Jack T. Chick’s devils would put it, “Haw haw!” I decided to become one of the authors going their own way.

Here’s how it’s done.

First, you need a good product. It’s been said that to start getting good at writing, you first have to get a million bad words out of the way. (Swearing a lot doesn’t count.) Personally, I think fan fiction is a good thing, since it’s basically a training ground. Practice makes perfect – just like learning to pick up babes! (Sometimes I sound like a broken record, don’t I?) Anyway, make sure that your spelling and grammar are good, because sloppiness is a turn-off for readers. That’s why you need to proofread. If you get “from” and “form” mixed up, for instance, your spell checker won’t see anything wrong, and your grammar checker might not be smart enough to flag it either. Style is important too. Being well-read in literature helps, since that provides good examples for you. It’s beneficial to have someone else proofread it too, who is knowledgeable and will give you honest advice. There isn’t any software yet that will tell you “this has a deus ex machina ending” or “your characterization is lame” or “Colonel Mustard hid the lead pipe in the study, but he whacked the guy in the kitchen, so you need to explain that or change the details.” I love to break stylistic rules, but then, that’s just my shtick.

Once you have a good manuscript ready to go, you’ll need to upload it. I’d recommend Amazon, the 800 pound gorilla of the ebook industry, and Smashwords, which pioneered ebooks and distributes to a large part of everything else. (They’ll also distribute to Amazon, but presently you must have a high sales volume before that becomes possible.) So, you’ll have to set up profiles. Here’s what mine look like:

Once you have your profile, then you’ll be able to upload books here:

Concerning Amazon, as you add books, you’ll have to associate them with your profile, so they show up on your author page. They also feature the Amazon Select program, which gives you extra features. The catch is that it’s exclusive: any book in that program may only be distributed through them, and if you change your mind, it will be 90 days before you can opt out. I’m not sure what happens if they catch you cheating, but consider yourself warned. It’s all up to you, but read all the fine print before making any decisions. Finally, they’re a little touchy about hyperlinks to non-Amazon book distributors. If you link to an author’s personal social media site (for instance, in a bibliography), generally that’s OK. If you have a blurb on an Amazon ebook linking to your own site, make it your Amazon site, or a personal site elsewhere. (Likewise, a Smashwords ebook shouldn’t have Amazon links.) So you’ll have to have two separate versions if you’re uploading to both; fortunately, that’s not too hard to manage.

You should know that ebooks don’t use the standard manuscript format of before; Smashwords has an excellent guide on how it’s done. They like Times New Roman 12 point, and generally nothing larger than 16 points such as for title headings. Using custom-defined Word styles is safer than formatting each header separately. Use single spacing. Avoid weird effects or exotic fonts. Read at least the following items from Smashwords; they’re pure gold:

You’ll need to include a title page: the title, then your name, date of publication, and all that jazz. Include a boilerplate copyright notice; Smashwords lists some examples. If you’re uploading to Amazon too (which I recommend) change the wording accordingly. Make another separate page for the table of contents. Your ebook will need an .NCX file, but fortunately, the conversion utilities when you upload your book will do that for you. At the top of your table of contents page, create a bookmark (in MS Word) called ref_TOC which will assist the converter in knowing what to look for. Create internal bookmarks for chapters, and hyperlink them from the table of contents.

Both Amazon and Smashwords will take a Microsoft Word document and convert it to various other formats. (OpenOffice probably also works, but I haven’t tried.) Your part of it is all done by the web page, and it’s just a matter of filling in the blanks and pointing to the files on your hard drive. Conversion can be a little tricky, so keep looking and make sure it all went through correctly. The process may take up to 24 hours, so quit biting your nails. Have a look at the finished product, just to be sure everything is OK. One time I uploaded the wrong manuscript and didn’t discover it until later – oopsie! Smashwords has its own ISBN manager utility – make sure to grab one there and associate it with your book after you’ve uploaded, and there’s no need to go anywhere else for an ISBN number. Amazon has its own separate (ASIN) system, and they do all that automatically. Also, as you upload, you’ll get a chance to choose a couple of categories and several keywords. Selecting them accurately is a benefit for you, because it helps people find your stuff. If you’re stumped, you can look up some other books similar to yours and see how they’re categorized.

You’ll also need to have a cover image. If you use a boring cover, then obviously that’s an impediment, since the cover is part of what sells a book, despite any proverbs you’ve heard to the contrary. Your cover will need to be at least 1280 pixels wide, 1400 long. Amazon does recommend 2500 long and a 1.6 aspect ratio (thus 1563 wide), though they will take 1400×1280 still. If you’re artistically inclined enough, then you can do the cover yourself. If not, you can pay someone else. I don’t really have a budget for this kind of thing thus far, so I get by with MS Paint and public domain content and fonts. You shouldn’t rip off somebody else’s stuff, or this can get you in trouble. Cover design is both fun and kind of a pain in the tail, all at the same time.

Speaking of the Copyright Gestapo, do not ever use song lyrics, no matter what you’ve heard about “fair use”. Thanks to the music industry trying to hold onto their rights for all those Jelly Roll Morton hits that are burning up the charts, and to their buddies in Congress, in practice lyrics are held to a more exacting standard than any other intellectual property. You can buy permissions for lyrics, but it will likely cost you a few hundred a pop. That’s obviously a problem until you become the next Stephen King and can afford all that.

Once you have some ebooks uploaded, the next step is publicity. They don’t just start flying off the shelves, so to speak. Trust me, I know; publicity is my weak point. One advantage that the media mega-conglomerates have is an enormous advertising budget; good news for the lucky 2% who get discovered. (Also, in brick-and-mortar stores, they get to decide which titles show up on the tables in front as you walk in.) You can advertise too if you want, but do your research to be sure you’re doing business with a reputable outfit. The good news is that you can use your social media to generate your own free publicity. If you’re lucky, it will go viral.

With the exception of this site, I’m not doing that. I don’t care to let my employer – present or any in the future – know about my creative efforts, since it ain’t their business. Also, some of the stuff I’ve written will get me on the naughty list for some alphabet soup Thought Police outfits. This is most especially so for Space Vixen Trek Episode 13: The Final Falafel, in which I poke fun at most major religions as well as some minor ones. Additionally, that one could get me a fatwa. I don’t particularly care to have my head cut off on TV, since that would kind of spoil my day. However, most of you won’t have that problem, in which case you can feel free to promote on social media.

If you’re extremely lucky, this might result in you sunning yourself on your yacht and lighting cigars with $100 bills. Note that you’ll need to report the income on your taxes, so set some aside as this won’t get withheld like regular income. Unless you strike it rich – and for most people this doesn’t happen – it’s pretty slim pickings, so don’t ice the Dom Perignon just yet. Don’t quit your day job, either. Anyway, give it your best shot. At least it beats getting one rejection letter after another.

How to get started in ebook publishing

4 thoughts on “How to get started in ebook publishing

  1. […] Many college textbooks are now available by electronic distribution, which means no need to print anything, but prices for them are just as high. That fact exposed the scam for what it is. Let’s get real here. My own book catalog didn’t cost me a cent to write, my distribution pays better royalties than I’d get from printed books, and you can do all that too. […]


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